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NFL free agency 2017: Rex Burkhead among ESPN’s top sleepers

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Expect Rex Burkhead to get a nice second contract in the NFL, while still likely being a good-value signing.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

With less than two weeks until NFL free agency begins, it’s still anyone’s guess as to what Rex Burkhead’s value will be.

One thing is for sure though: Burkhead is assumed to be one of the best value free agents this offseason. Even though Burkhead showed a lot of promise in his brief stint as the Bengals’ top running back, it was still just that; a brief stint in which only so much stock can be placed.

For every Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead who breaks out with his second NFL team, there’s a Jerome Harrison, Peyton Hillis or Bernard Scott flash-in-the-pan back.

As good as Burkhead looked in the second half of the season, he did all of his damage in only a handful of games, after never really playing significant snaps in his four year NFL career until the final game of his fourth season. Still, there’s reason to think he’ll be a solid starter with his next team, which is why ESPN has him among their top free agents who may surprise upon signing just their second NFL contract.

Rex Burkhead, 26, Bengals running back

Why he's available: Burkhead was an interesting college prospect at Nebraska but wound up as a sixth-round pick of the same team that used second-round selections on Giovani Bernard (2013 draft) and Jeremy Hill (2014). Burkhead's sample size of 87 regular-season carries is incredibly low on his NFL career.

What he does offer: Despite Burkhead vastly outplaying Hill in short samples last season, the Bengals continued to pound the rock with the player they believed in more. To quantify this further: Burkhead finished first in rushing defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) among all players with fewer than 100 carries. Hill was 25th among 42 qualifying backs in the same statistic, finishing with five times less DYAR than Burkhead in triple the carries.

Burkhead also fits the new breed of running back who doubles as a receiving threat out of the backfield. When injuries banged up the Bengals heading into the 2014 season, Burkhead was asked to be a slot receiver and gadget threat, and he performed admirably.

The free-agent running back market is often ugly, and advocating a huge contract for a back is a step I'm not willing to take. But Burkhead doesn't come with the usual mileage caveats of backs in free agency, and he just might be able to elevate his game and become the next Shane Vereen.

Other under-the-radar free agents ESPN acknowledged in their ranking include Giants defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, Packers center J.C. Tretter, and Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson.

A former sixth-round pick out of Nebraska via the 2013 NFL Draft, Burkhead has spent most of his career behind Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jeremy Hill and even special teams ace Cedric Peerman. However, injuries finally allowed Burkhead to shine in 2016. He got his chance as the starting running back in Week 17 against the Ravens, and he totaled 119 yards rushing and also added 25 yards receiving.

Unfortunately, Week 17 may have been the final time we see Burkhead in stripes. Once he hits free agency, a number of teams should be lining up to give him a decent contract while also giving him the chance to start (or at least be the No. 2).

The Bengals may be willing to offer him another contract, but I doubt they’ll give him any guarantee of playing over Bernard or Hill. Other teams can offer him a clearer path to a big role in their offense, and because of that, I don’t him re-signing with the Bengals.